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Susan B. Anthony: The Good Fanatic | The Nation

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Susan B. Anthony: The Good Fanatic

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She was a fanatic but "a good fanatic" in the fight for women's freedom.

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Freda Kirchwey
Freda Kirchwey was a former managing editor, literary editor, editor and, ultimately, publisher of The Nation. She died...

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Certainly, John S. Sumner and John Roach Straton must be called fanatics. William Jennings Bryan and Wayne B. Wheeler were fanatics, too. There are others, living and dead, who could be named, and, running over the list, I find that I dislike almost every one of them. Such persons are disagreeably tinged with abnormality; in a world full of a number of things they seem to be interested in just one, and to be happy as kings only when they are making other people miserable. The single track along which their minds roll seems in each case to lead through arid country toward dismal destinations. And that raises the question whether fanatics are not merely persons who passionately believe the wrong things. Or perhaps there are bad fanatics and good fanatics.

If there are, then Susan B. Anthony was a good fanatic. It is hard, indeed, for me to admit that she should be tagged with that label at all. In reading the story of her astonishing life by Rheta Childe Dorr,* I found myself trying to invent reasons for exempting her. For certainly one must like Susan B. Anthony. Although she devoted herself throughout a long life to the cause of women's freedom, although she was stern and unflinching and allowed neither herself nor her followers to rest along the way, the people who knew her most intimately loved her best. In spite of this I suppose we must agree that Susan was a fanatic. The sorry state of women in the nineteenth century so stirred her resentment and pity that no other emotions could burn as brightly in her heart. She worked for temperance, it is true, before she took up the cause of women; but the treatment of her sex even in the ranks of the temperance organizations drove her back to the main track. She worked for the abolition of slavery, and became one of the leading organizers and speakers in the group that contained William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass. But after the war these men refused to link the cause of woman's suffrage, which they had always supported, with the question of enfranchising the black men of the South. "It is the Negroes' hour" was their slogan. So Susan and her friends turned back with stubborn determination to their own fight.

Susan never married and had little time for personal relationships outside of the few friendships that grew out of the common battle. She thought, worked, traveled, talked for the freedom of women. Such deep emotion, such endless loyalty sunk in an impersonal course must always seem abnormal to ordinary people living in ordinary days. But there are times that breed fanaticism, times when to be normal means to rebel, when an easy acceptance of the world reveals nothing better than a flabby mind and weak nerves.

Susan B. Anthony was born in a liberal Quaker household; her father believed in her capacity and encouraged her. She was intelligent, strong, ambitious. And, as such a girl must, she stubbed her toe with almost every step she took on the laws and conventions of her day--from the time when she entered Miss Deborah Moulson's Select Seminary for Females where some learning was combined with the "Principles of Morality, Humility, and the Love of Virtue," until she began teaching school at a salary of $2.50 a week succeeding a man who had received $10. Everywhere she found women discriminated against and circumscribed, whether they labored at home or attempted to earn a living "in the world." America struggled in the clutches of two forms of human slavery, that of the Negro and that of women. If the former was more obvious and brutal, the latter was quite as effective and as demoralizing. As a grotesque and sinister background for the figure of Susan, Mrs. Dorr has painted an unforgettable picture of women's life in this country during the early years of the suffrage fight, when a married woman could not own property or make contracts; when her wages and even her children belonged solely to her husband; when only a few, ill-paid trades were open to women and no colleges or professional schools admitted them. Let those of us who fancy ourselves too knowing and too "normal" for fanaticism consider what our own emotions would be in a similar state of society. Like Russia before the Revolution; like Ireland under the Black-and-Tans; like China in the last five years--the United States in the middle nineteenth century demanded martyrs and warriors. As well ask William Lloyd Garrison to be cool and balanced in the face of Negro slavery, as to tell Susan B. Anthony that she should cultivate other interests than the cause of equal rights for women.

Perhaps the objection to our objectionable present-day fanatics lies in the causes which animate them. The abolition of freedom and intelligence seems to be the chief purpose of these advocates of blue laws, censorship laws, prohibition laws, anti-evolution laws. But the cause headed by Susan B. Anthony, despite its entanglements with the mighty Puritan tradition, was essentially one of liberation. We may laugh at Susan and her friends--they were earnest, single-minded, indignant people--but in that act we pay tribute to their work. For they died in the very process of giving birth to a society so comfortable and free that it can afford to laugh at fanatics--even good ones.

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